Following a major breakthrough this summer, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by professor Daniel Nocera, have announced that the much-talked-about “artificial leaf” is now a reality. According to a paper published in the Sept. 30 issue of the journal Science, Nocera and his colleagues have successfully used the device to turn sunlight directly into a chemical fuel that can be stored and used later as an energy source.
The artificial leaf is essentially a silicon solar cell with different catalytic materials bonded to each side that allow it to split a water molecule into oxygen and hydrogen — a liquid fuel source. It is made entirely of abundant, inexpensive materials (mostly silicon, cobalt and nickel) and works in ordinary water.
The device still has a way to go before being ready for commercialization. Systems to collect, store and use the gases generated by the device remain to be developed. But, professor James Barber, a biochemist from Imperial College London who was not involved in this research, underscored the importance of this new technology. “There is no doubt that their achievement is a major breakthrough which will have a significant impact on the work of others dedicated to constructing light-driven catalytic systems to produce hydrogen and other solar fuels from water,” Barber said.
Now that the “leaf” has been proven to work, Nocera and his team envision a future in which individual homes could be designed to use sunlight to produce hydrogen and oxygen, store it in tanks and feed it to a fuel cell whenever electricity is needed. Nocera hopes that such systems could be simple and inexpensive enough so that they could be widely adopted in areas without access to reliable sources of electricity.